When disaster strikes, who you going to call?
José Andrés, chef and humanitarian, and not so incidentally, superhero to those who need to be fed.
After organizing more than 3.6 million meals when Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017, and another 300,000-plus meals (as of Feb. 6) after the island’s recent earthquakes, Andrés has a few things to say about disaster relief.
“Feed people first,” as he so deftly describes in his riveting account, “We Fed An Island: The True Story of Rebuilding Puerto Rico, One Meal at a Time.”
Andrés will offer details during his visit to Minneapolis on March 2 as part of the Inspired Conversations series, sponsored by the Star Tribune and the Hennepin Theatre Trust.
Born in northern Spain in 1969, Andrés went to culinary school in Barcelona at age 15, after which he served in the Spanish Navy, where he was assigned to cook. From there he apprenticed at elBulli, a Spanish restaurant run by his mentor, the chef Ferran Adrià.
Three years later, Andrés headed to the United States with $50 in his pocket. At age 23, he was hired to open up the kitchen at Jaleo in Washington, D.C., in 1993, one of the first tapas restaurants in the country.
By 2003, he had won his first James Beard award. In the next decade he would add two more Beard awards to his résumé and earn a two-star Michelin rating for his restaurant minibar in D.C.
Many chefs would have continued with more of the same.
But when Andrés visited Haiti as a volunteer after its destructive earthquake in 2010, he was inspired to go in a bold new direction.
The result was World Central Kitchen (WCK), a nonprofit that involves volunteers working with local residents in natural disaster zones, where they feed those in desperate need. The group uses food to both “empower communities and strengthen economies,” as WCK describes it.
All in a day’s work for the energetic Andrés.
WCK’s efforts have been far-flung, from hurricanes in Houston and the Bahamas, to wildfires in California and earthquakes in Indonesia. It also provided meals for federal workers during the partial government shutdown a few years ago.
But Puerto Rico really set WCK’s course. Andrés landed there five days after the hurricane, only to discover that there was no single U.S. organization in charge of feeding American citizens in need during a disaster.
Various nonprofits — the Salvation Army and Red Cross, among them — made the attempt to feed the masses, but their efforts were only a drop in the proverbial food bucket.
So Andrés turned to those with expertise, in this case the chefs of Puerto Rico, who would put their skills and organizational abilities to work.
“Leave it to the professionals,” he said.
Those professionals brought expertise in procuring food, repurposing commercial kitchens, cooking for scale, delivering meals (food trucks were the most valuable vehicles for reaching rural and distant communities in Puerto Rico).
But the backbone of WCK’s effort may well be his signature in restaurants: good food.
The U.S. government had been handing out packaged Meals Ready to Eat (MRE), a barely palatable assembly of food created for the military battlefield and, by necessity, having a long life span. The meals were never intended for extended use.
Andrés and crew chose to fight hunger with their best weapon: hot meals and homemade sandwiches, using ingredients grown or available on the island. This was intentional, because it helped jump-start the economy and used food familiar and comforting to the people in need.
“I like to say that a hot meal is more than just food; it’s a plate of hope,” wrote Andrés. “An MRE is almost hopeless.”
Take his sandwiches, for example. They were important because they were portable, filling and flavorful, even while simple: ham and cheese slices (from Sam’s Club in Puerto Rico) on white sliced bread (sourced from local bakeries).
His key ingredient was mayo, lots of it, spiked with ketchup and sometimes mustard for flavor.
“We don’t want to just give food,” he told his team. “We want to give the best food. And please put on more mayo.”
The millions of hot meals started with large paella pans set up outside local restaurants and run by local chefs, where the fragrance of simmering chicken and rice drew the hungry. The cooks increased the number of meals they made daily until it was no longer practical to operate out of small kitchens.
Then they moved to the big-time commercial spaces, including a sports stadium, followed with collaborations with church and school kitchens, many in distant areas throughout the island, where meals could more readily be dispersed to smaller communities.
All the while, the gregarious and irrepressible Andrés, in his tan fly-fishing vest, kept the world aware of those who needed to be fed by way of social media, specifically videos from the scene.
WCK’s efforts, in effect, created an alternative model of food relief, a kind of first responder to the hungry.
It was based on the biggest restaurant in the world: the island of Puerto Rico.
Jose Andrés and the issue of immigration is profiled in “What’s Eating America?,” a new limited series with Andrew Zimmern, at 8 p.m. Feb. 16, MSNBC.
About José Andrés
Born: In Spain; naturalized U.S. citizen (2013).
Family: Patricia Fernandez Andrés, wife, and three daughters.
TV: Featured Sunday (today) on “What’s Eating America?,” with Andrew Zimmern, MSNBC, 8 p.m., plus two earlier PBS series.
Awards: Many, including James Beard Foundation Best Chef Mid-Atlantic (2003), Outstanding Chef (2011) Humanitarian (2018); National Humanities Medal (2015), Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” (2012, 2018); nominee for Nobel Peace Prize (2018).
Books: “Vegetables Unleashed” (2019); “We Fed an Island” (2018); “Made in Spain: Spanish Dishes for the American Kitchen” (2008); “Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America” (2005).